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Transgender students still face discrimination in New York schools, report finds

Members of Long Island's transgender community march and

Members of Long Island's transgender community march and rally outside the Nassau County Legislative Building in Mineola on Sunday, June 14, 2015. Credit: Johnny Milano

Transgender students face widespread discrimination and harassment in public schools on Long Island and across New York State, despite recognition of their status and adoption of a state law meant to protect them, a civil rights group said in a report released Wednesday.

These students' rights "are routinely violated by schools that are supposed to protect and nurture them," said Lauren Frederico, primary author of the New York Civil Liberties Union report.

The document cites the experience of eight students, including Long Island student "Danny," 16, who switched his gender identification from female to male, but was unable to persuade his school to update his records. As a result, the teen was routinely stopped by hallway monitors and cafeteria workers in school and questioned about the name and photo on his ID card, the report said.

Upset by such treatment, the student began skipping classes and failing courses, according to the report.

The 42-page report, "Dignity for All?" used pseudonyms to protect the teenagers' identities and did not name their schools or districts. It was based on cases in various regions of the state that the NYCLU handled in response to complaints filed by the students' families.

Danny was not one of the two transgender students and two parents who spoke under pseudonyms during a teleconference Wednesday.

"Michelle," the mother of transgender "Sara," 15, who lives in a small town in northern New York, said Sara was bullied so much in the ninth grade that she had an emotional breakdown. The school did not address the bullying, she said.

"On more than one occasion, she told me, 'I wish I could go to bed and not wake up,' " Michelle said.

Michelle is moving her to another school district.

"Locke," 18, who lives in the state's southern tier area, said he transitioned socially to male about four years ago. He remembered how he asked to be called Locke, be referred to with male pronouns and to use the boys' restroom on the first day of ninth grade. All of his requests were denied, he said.

"I had an anxiety attack and broke down in front of a bunch of my friends," he said. "I think some teachers just don't like me because I'm transgender."

"Casey," 11, who goes to school in the Albany region, said she loves the color purple, her two cats, singing, swimming and playing with her stuffed animals.

"For as long as I can remember, I've always known I was a girl," she said.

Casey said she isn't allowed to use the girls' restroom. Before and after gym class, she changes clothes in the nurse's office.

"It makes me feel like I'm a freak and I don't belong," she said. "I wish the school would treat me like any other girl."

The report states that despite the state's reputation as a progressive leader, "transgender New Yorkers face barriers when trying to access even the most basic services, including an education." It goes on to say that transgender children as young as 5 "face relentless harassment, threats and even violence for trying to access their right to an education."

The Jericho school district holds an annual forum that shows teachers, guidance counselors and social workers how districts can create supportive policies for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students.

Superintendent Hank Grishman said Wednesday that Jericho is on the forefront of supporting LGBT students.

The state's Dignity for All Students Act, implemented in 2010, explicitly bans discrimination in schools on the basis of gender identity.

Donna Lieberman, executive director of NYCLU, said during the teleconference that the law should have been a "turning point" in New York.

But "the law alone is not enough if schools don't understand the law and aren't supported in following it," Frederico said.

Provisions of the Dignity for All Students Act are widely ignored, according to the NYCLU. During the 2012-13 school year, schools statewide reported 4,756 incidents of discrimination or harassment based on gender or sexual orientation, the group said.

In April, the state Education Department announced it is preparing guidelines for schools on steps they should take to become safe and supportive environments for transgender students. Such students are defined as those whose gender identity is different from their sex at birth.

The guidelines, which are in draft form and haven't been issued to the districts, address some of the NYCLU's concerns, including respecting the preferred names and gender pronouns of students and limiting gender-based policies.

But while the NYCLU calls for schools to provide all students with access to restrooms, locker rooms and changing facilities that correspond to their gender identity, the Education Department recommends the principal, student and parent address such access on a case-by-case basis.One of the most commonly reported problems encountered by transgender students is access to school bathrooms or locker rooms where they feel comfortable. "Dignity for All?" cites the case of "Kate," 14, who had transitioned from male to female, but was threatened with suspension from school when she tried to use the girls' bathroom.

In its report, the NYCLU recommends that schools regularly train all adult workers -- not just teachers -- to properly deal with transgender students.

The organization also calls on schools to provide confidential means for such youths to report any incidents of harassment or bullying.

"Every kid is precious. Every kid reserves respect and dignity, and our schools is the place where that needs to happen first and foremost," Lieberman said.

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